Hey Millennials, wine and liquor marketers think you have a target on your back

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It’s wine, Jim, but not as we know it.

Last month, a pair of essays I wrote ran in Slate. The first focused on the rise in “gender-specific” spirits (i.e. vodka designed for women, flavored cognac engineered just for men), the second dealt with pop-culture branded wine (i.e. Downton Abbey wine, Duck Dynasty wine).

Two very different topics, but one disturbing thread connects both:  clearly, wine and liquor marketers think Millennial drinkers have a big old target on their backs. What I heard over and over again was, “it worked when they were kids; it will continue to work now.”

Consider this comment, from the gendered spirits article:

Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at University of California–Davis (coincidentally, a school famed for its winemaking programs), sees parallels between how toys and these candy-like alcoholic beverages are marketed…“The people who were children in the 1990s when I started to see toys color-coded by gender, pink and blue, they are becoming young adults,” Sweet observes. And “they are used to gender differentiation in products.” In other words, millennials are desensitized to gender-specific marketing; many have never known anything else.

Alongside this comment, from the pop-culture wine article:

Millennials in particular grew up with branding, and they don’t think anything of it,” says Kara Nielsen, a consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insight. “They grew up with a cartoon character on their toothpaste. This is like Mickey Mouse-branded treats for the grown-up set.”

A note to the over-21 Millennial set: when you were a kid and someone handed you a blue SpongeBob Squarepants toothbrush or a pink Disney princess toothbrush, you probably didn’t have much choice in the matter. You’re an adult now, with an astonishing array of choices before you. Please choose wisely. It’s your prerogative to choose candy-flavored whiskey or Star Trek-branded wine if that’s what you truly want, but please, make sure that it’s YOUR decision. Don’t let marketers decide for you.

Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands — of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend— fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.

Why some spirits bottles fly off the shelf and others just sit there

Recently, I had the good fortune to be in possession of 70+ bottles of tequila. After posting the photographic evidence, I was asked, “so what do you do with all those bottles?” While a more sociable person would use the bounty to throw a party, I give away most bottles to my office-mates.

With very few exceptions, no, I don’t make the rounds giving specific bottles to specific people. Rather, I set them out and let everyone have at ’em. And it’s fascinating to see what flies off the shelf when price isn’t a factor. I thought this might be of particular interest to anyone involved in selling or marketing spirits brands. 

 Apparently, here’s what factors into the decision-making process:

1. Expert opinion. In other words, people get overwhelmed and ask me, “which one do you think is best?” They also ask one another, and consult their smartphones for online guides. “Expert” is relative.

2. Name recognition. Even if the spirit has a bad reputation, “I’ve heard of it” is a big draw.

3. Pretty pretty colors. Bold, eye catching bottles or labels fly off the shelf fast. Ditto for spirits with entertaining or salacious names or slogans on the bottles.

4. Expensive looking/gift-worthy appearance. Many people want to take bottles to parties. Luxe bottles trump cheap-looking ones.

And to a lesser degree:

5. Smell. Obviously, not a factor in stores with closed bottles. But given the opportunity, imbibers will pop the top and take a whiff – and if they don’t like the aroma, back it goes!

6. Recipes. If someone can’t figure out what to make with it, it stays on the shelf.  Bottles with recipe booklets on the neck tend to walk away before those without.

Frankly, it drives me crazy that I can set out 10 bottles of tequila (or any other spirit category), and when I return later the best of the batch is the one left sitting all by its lonesome. The lesson? It kills me to say this, but sometimes it’s what’s on the outside that counts.

So to all you distillers out there, the message is clear:  keep striving to make the best possible product you can, but if you want a wide range of drinkers to go out and buy your product, you’ll still need stellar design, marketing, and PR.